How the NCAA Basketball Cartel Seized Its Power

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The college tournament was once run by a different organization—before a scandal cleared the way for new association to take control.

Reuters

It's fitting that the NCAA basketball tournament kicks off during the week of St. Patrick's Day, because it all began with Irish. That's Edward S. "Ned" Irish, who was born in 1905 in upstate New York and was one of the three or four most important men in the history of basketball.

Irish was a part-time basketball writer, part-time promoter, and full-time hustler. The way I heard his story, from two great veteran sportswriters, Leonard Koppett and Vic Ziegel, Irish tried, with limited success, to cover college basketball games for a New York daily in the late 1930s. It's hard to understand today, but the newspapers didn't appreciate that there was a potentially large audience who were interested in basketball, and the colleges didn't understand the wisdom of letting a sportswriter in for free to write about their teams. Repeatedly snubbed, he resorted to sneaking into arenas to see the games. On one legendary occasion, finding the promoters were hip to him and all the doors were locked, he broke a window in the athletic department and slipped through it, ripping his best suit pants in the process.

It took him a few years, but Irish was finally able to get the point across to New York's biggest basketball powers: Print coverage might actually help their attendance. If Ned Irish wasn't the father of New York basketball, he was at least the father of New York basketball writers.

By 1930, through a combination of brains, guts, and blarney, he organized the first postseason college basketball competition—the National Invitational Tournament. For 20-odd years, the NIT ruled—or perhaps "crowned" would be a better term, since it capped the college basketball season.

But looming on the horizon was the evil beast, the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NCAA established their tournament the year after the NIT began, and until the early 1950s it was second to Ned Irish's baby in both prize money and prestige. The reason wasn't difficult to figure. The NIT could offer something that the NCAA couldn't: a trip to New York.

Afraid to challenge the NIT on its turf, the NCAA held its tournament somewhere west of the Hudson River, out in the suburbs. But New York guaranteed the invitees higher ticket sales and also meant more newspaper coverage. There was no way the NCAA could compete—at least not fairly.

Under Irish's home rule, New York and Madison Square Garden became the Mecca of college basketball, and by 1946 NIT games were drawing an amazing average of nearly 18,200 fans a game. This was more fans than most baseball teams--including all three New York teams—were pulling in.

But Irish made a mistake. In his arrogance, he pretended not to know that New York was also the Mecca for professional gamblers and did nothing to curtail their activities in and around the Garden. The luck of the Irish turned dramatically bad in 1951 with a game-fixing scandal that rocked college basketball. New York District Attorney Frank Hogan announced that six colleges, four of them in New York, and more than 30 players were involved.

Most of the players were found guilty of fixing games while a handful were simply "shaving" points to lose (or winning by less than the oddsmakers had determined they were supposed to win by). Hogan later told reporters that the scandal was the result of "the blatant commercialism which had permeated college basketball." One wonders what the District Attorney might have thought of college basketball if he had lived another 40 years.

Instead of cooperating with investigators and doing his best to clean up the game, Irish circled his wagons and accused Hogan of grandstanding and timing his arrests to coincide with his reelection campaign. It was a disastrous move on Irish's part.

Using the bad publicity which surrounded the NIT for leverage, the NCAA made its move, vowing to clean up the sport. Over a period of time, they bullied and pressured their way into a dominant position by insisting that member schools send their conference champions to its own tournament. In 1970 Marquette Coach Al McGuire pulled his 8th-ranked Golden Eagles out of the tournament to protest being placed in the Midwest regional instead of the Mideast, which was closer to home. McGuire's boys won the NIT, and they were the last team to spurn an NCAA bid. Today teams are not allowed to turn down an "invitation" to the tournament.

It was only a matter of time before virtually all the leading teams in the country would forsake college basketball's original tournament. In the 1980s and 1990s, the NIT limped along, trying to maintain some semblance of a major sporting event. That passed forever, along with the possibility of ever again rivaling the NCAA, in 2005 when the NCAA purchased the rights to the NIT for $56.5 million. Today, all 110 teams who play basketball in the NCAA and NIT tournaments get a check from the NCAA.

Irish's interests had already expanded when the 1951 scandal broke. In 1946 he helped found the Basketball Association of America, which three years later threw in with the National Basketball League to become ... yes, the National Basketball Association. Thirty years later Irish would help merge the NBA with the upstart American Basketball Association, laying the foundation for the worldwide marketing monster we know today. Irish chose a plum job in professional basketball for himself: executive vice president of the New York Knicks, a job he held until 1974. He died in 1982, just living long enough to witness the boom ignited by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

As they chipped away at the NIT, one of the NCAA's big selling points was a "clean" new brand of basketball. Of course, they never came close to fulfilling that promise. Remember just a week ago an Auburn player was suspended for shaving points? It was major news—for about 20 minutes. After that, the "scandal" was completely lost in the pre-tournament hype. What the NCAA chooses not to recognize within its own domain can be scarcely evident to the outside world.

It's odd that the NCAA's ruthless monopoly of student athletes' earning power is usually associated with football, a sport from which they take no direct revenue. Basketball, on the other hand, always seems to get a free pass, and the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is far and away their biggest cash cow.

Editorialists spend 11 months of the year lambasting the NCAA for being arbitrary, dictatorial, and brutal. Then they spend the other month, March, acting as the NCAA's biggest booster. It's a scam, of course. No tournament needs 68 teams to determine the best team in the nation. In 104 games between No. 1 and No. 16 seeded teams, no 16th seed has ever won. In 104 games between No. 2 and No. 15 seeds, the 15 seeds have won exactly four. If you're counting, that's 200-4 for the 1's and 2's. The old NIT number of 32 invitees is all that's really needed.

But the NCAA scam is one that we're all complicit in, from the colleges who all get a big payday to the sportswriters, who all get a story, to us, who get a bracket to fill out in the office pool.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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